Another day in ''paradise'' is ending here. Along a quiet stretch of beach, a local family drives up in a pickup truck to enjoy the last hour of daylight. A solitary fisherman casts his line into the sea. A man and his dog jog along the shore. Horses graze nearby.
The late afternoon calm, however, is misleading. Just a few hundred yards from this peaceful beach stands a 25-acre hotel-condominium site known as Nukolii. It is a development that has shaken this picturesque island, and which today may be the most symbolic battleground in Hawaii's struggle to meet its future without destroying its past.
The issue, like almost every matter of controversy in the nation's youngest state, is over the aina - the land. It is a question that is being grappled with at virtually every level of Hawaiian society, from state government and the all-important tourism industry to local officials and blue-collar workers. The dilemma boils down to this:
In a tiny island state where the annual total of tourists outnumbers local inhabitants by 3 to 1, how is the use of land - a finite resource -- balanced between development and preserving local life styles?
''It (all) comes down to the question of land use here,'' explains Gov. George R. Ariyoshi. ''We're trying to guard against uncontrolled growth. We're saying we want growth, but we want to be sure it's at a pace that's good for us. We want to be sure that it's in the right places . . . so that we will not be faced with many of the problems of overgrowth.''
To an outsider, the debate at first glance seems overblown. With the exception of Waikiki -- where some 27,000 hotel rooms are crowded onto seven-tenths of a square mile - Hawaii hardly appears to be in danger of succumbing to mass urbanization. Even on Oahu, where approximately 80 percent of Hawaii's population of 965,000 lives, one can find rural back roads and empty beaches. And on parts of the neighboring islands, particularly Kauai, it's easy to feel far away from the madding crowd.
But seen from an inhabitant's point of view, and placed in historical context , the issue becomes more meaningful. ''If we use Los Angeles standards,'' one lifetime Kauai resident chides a questioning reporter, ''anything is rural and nice.''
By tradition, Hawaiians have defined their relationship to the land in a spiritual context, much like American Indians. Mainland concepts of land ownership had little to do with Hawaiian culture until the 1800s, when haoles (whites) came to the islands and began developing the sugar and pineapple plantations. Today, the overwhelming majority of Hawaii's 6,450 square miles is controlled or owned by a small group that includes the federal goverment, the state, three private estates, and five old corporations known as ''the big five.''
Although Hawaii's growth boom of the 1960s and 1970s has slowed, development and land use continue to play a dominant role in state policymaking and local elections. In a November 1981 state survey, for example, 51 percent of those polled said they felt Hawaii should grow at a slower rate - and 21 percent said it should not grow at all.
The debate over Kauai's complex Nukolii project has become emotionally charged, fueled in part by revelations that a secret hui, or partnership, of powerful businessmen and politicians had made a substantial profit in a quick purchase and sale of the land. The friction between local values and development pressures has propelled the issue to the Hawaii State Supreme Court.
Unlike other development controversies here, Nukolii was put to a vote by the local electorate -- and turned down by a 2-to-1 margin. Kauai's mayor argued that the developers already had spent so much money developing the site that they had a ''vested right'' in it. He refused to uphold the referendum result. His decision was challenged by Nukolii opponents, and is now awaiting a ruling from the state's high court.
Some observers note that Kauai is an unusual case within the Hawaiian Islands. It has a reputation for militancy that dates back to at least the late 1700s, when it was the only island that King Kamehameha I failed to conquer when he unified the islands. Still, the Nukolii controversy illumines much of Hawaii's development dilemma -- a classic confrontation between pro-development forces, who argue that tourism is Hawaii's only economic hope, and those who contend that growth must not disrupt a way of life.
Attempts to resolve that conflict have been at the root of Hawaii's pioneering work in land-use planning. As early as 1961, for example, Hawaii set a national precedent when it became the first state in the country to pass a statewide law that classified all land in the state -- public and private -- into four strictly controlled categories: urban, agricultural, conservation, and rural.
And in 1978, Hawaii again set a precedent when it became the first and only state to adopt an umbrella land-use plan -- essentially a blueprint for Hawaii's future. Under the broad plan, the state has tried to pinpoint growth, no-growth, and slow-growth areas to guide development away from a collision course with local values.
''What we're attempting to do is to try to keep that spirit,'' Governor Ariyoshi continues, ''so that we don't have people, Hawaii's people, saying 'Oh, that's good for business, but it's not good for Hawaii.' ''